One of my students is asking who has access to the poets and poems we are privileged to be reading and discussing in our Poets of Color class. This question, and many other excellent questions she asks are an extension of the questions Meta DuEwa Jones asks in her “Descent and Transcendence…” essay.
So, first, back to my question in yesterday’s blog post about how we as educators perpetuate the racial profiling of “WWB,” “writing while black,” “writing while brown.” I remember being asked by a student at USF during last semester’s Asian American Women Authors event, how to cope, how to handle ourselves when we are the minority in an English Lit classroom, being presented the one or two token writings by someone of color. When, in this situation, we students of color are called upon to be the authority on writers of color and their “ethnic” content. I told this student that the very premise of a class like that is faulty. When studying “American Literature,” why only one or two writers of color? Why only Li-Young Lee or whoever is the go to Asian American author? American Literature is truly much more diverse than a solitary token writer or two, and a curriculum should represent this diversity — ethnic, aesthetic, formalistic, etc.
So then I see how in any college or university, a Writers of Color course in an English Department is meant to correct the imbalance and under-representation, but then again, let’s think about how this is a flawed premise. This tells me that decision makers don’t think there is anything necessitating change with the individual classes within the existing department curriculum.
I say all these things knowing also the history of ethnic exclusion and under-representation of faculty, students, and material in the curriculum, which led to the TWLF and the formation of Ethnic Studies Departments at SFSU and UC Berkeley.
So, maybe am I being contradictory?
Back to my student’s question re: the privilege and access we in a college setting have, the space to read and discuss poetry and writers or color, I have to be open to the idea of the open mic and the poetry slam, two apparently democratizing “movements” in American poetry, these movements which continually wrest poetry out of the claws of the academic institution. This is a good segue into Week 4 of class, discussing Miguel Algarín’s introduction to Aloud. He discusses the Nuyorican Poets Cafe space as a room of (t)he(i)r own, one in which the people can take back the poetry that has remained locked and hoarded in academic spaces. Certainly, in the Bay Area, we have these kinds of spaces, and as a college student, I felt invited by community elders to leave the UC Berkeley space and come into the elder Kearny Street Workshop writers’ spaces, art happenings and potlucks in people’s homes, coffee houses, public libraries, indie bookstores, political protests.
Perhaps I am idealistic, or too limited by my own experience and social position; so early on in my writing career I have been blessed by that permission and ability to move between community and academic spaces. Hence, my interest is in enabling that movement for everyone. The especially difficult hurdle, I think, is in opening up the college/university space to community folks. No matter how welcoming I try to be, there is still this university edifice and legacy of exclusivity that’s reinforcing the opposite of what I am trying to say: Come In, Tuloy po kayo.